The Apocrypha in Lent – 23 March

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

23 March. Baruch chapters 1-3

These first chapters of the book are a combination of three Biblical genres – history, lament and wisdom.  The introduction sets it firmly in historical context – Baruch wrote it in exile in Babylonia as a text to be read first to those who were in exile with him, then to be sent back to Jerusalem to be read and acted on by those who remained.  It was sent along with money to pay for sacrifices and other expenses of the Temple.  Reading the other books of this period one can get the impression that no Jews remained alive in Judah, that the Temple was totally destroyed and worship ceased.  But from this book we get a different impression – a remnant remained in Jerusalem and was trying to keep the faith going there, just as the exiles were trying to “sing the Lord’s song in a strange land”.  By having them both read the same texts, Baruch was trying perhaps to foster a sense of unity between them.  Different places, different trying circumstances, but the same people of God.  As one verse of a well-known Christian hymn puts it,

Through many a day of darkness,
Through many a scene of strife,
The faithful few fought bravely,
To guard the nation’s life,
Their Gospel of redemption,
Sin pardoned, man restored,
Was all in this enfolded,
“One Church, one Faith, one Lord.” (Edward Plumptre, 1889)

The second element is lament – the people’s confession and contrition for their sins, acknowledging God’s right to punish them for turning away from him.  This sits very uneasily in today’s culture of rights, entitlements and personal freedom.  While nearly everybody (I hope) realises when they have physically or emotionally hurt someone else and will be willing to apologise for it, it is common for people to take the attitude “what I choose to do  is no-one else’s business, and if I offend them, that’s their problem”.  And if that is the attitude towards fellow humans, the idea of offending God, let alone the idea that God has the right to punish us, is even more alien to this post-modern world.

Sometimes it takes a real crisis – personal or corporate – to make people come to their senses and understand that right and wrong, sin and punishment, confession and forgiveness, operate not only between individuals but across communities and ultimately the whole world.    Perhaps the nearest a secular mindset comes to understanding this is with ecological damage and climate change, where we are gradually accepting that the pollution or waste I cause today will, indirectly but surely, have a negative impact on the lives of people I will never meet.  And the scale of confession and repentance (i.e. changing attitudes and actions) that is required is no less than that which faced the Jews in exile, or left behind in Jerusalem.

The good news is that lament is followed by praise to God for his wisdom (Chapter 3), by which we can do things right.    Only by doing things God’s way, and recognising our mutual dependence on each other, can we find the way of wisdom, the way of forgiveness, the way of sustainable living.

 

The Apocrypha in Lent – 22 March

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

22 March. Ecclesiasticus chapters 50-51

The book ends with two very different chapters.  The first describes in detail some of the rituals of the Temple, over two thousand years ago, but so slow is change in religious circles that the High Priest of those days, if transported to a Catholic or traditional Anglican church now, would not feel completely out of place.  A priest in vestments that have changed little since Roman times, standing before (or behind) an altar, raising his hands in prayer, holding a cup of wine as an offering, the smell of incense, the sound of the organ perhaps resembling the trumpets of his day, a choir chanting psalms, and at the end a blessing over the assembled people.  And all this in a building designed to symbolise segregation – the narthex for ordinary activities such as eating and drinking, the nave for the laity to worship, a chancel for the choir, the sanctuary with its altar only for the priest.

There are differences, of course, and the Mass even in a very traditional setting is not intended to resemble an animal sacrifice.  Women priests (in an Anglican setting) might be the biggest surprise to our time traveller. The congregation is more likely to be standing or seated than prostrate in prayer – an attitude now found more in Islam than Christianity, but a powerful symbol of humility before God.  But overall, the principles of communal worship  have not changed that much.

The whole book of Ecclesiasticus has been, supposedly, about Wisdom, and the second half of the last chapter (51:13-30) summaries the search for her.  This female personification of God’s inspiration has taken the writer in many directions – good and bad relationships, sex and marriage, and the value of friendship; asceticism, indulgence and a healthy attitude towards money;  life, death and the afterlife; good and evil; truth, lies, gossiping and careful speech; physical and mental health; worship of God and admiration for his creation; and the guidance of God for his people throughout history.  A whole library of practical life skills, in fact.  It deserves to be more widely read.

The Apocrypha in Lent – 19 March

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19 March. Ecclesiasticus chapters 39-41

The second half of chapter 38 was about farmers and tradesmen – people who work hard for a living (and with no suggestion there is anything wrong with that in itself) but have no time to become wise or educated.  They do not become councillors, judges or writers, or what we might now call celebrities, but “they give solidity to the created worlds, while their prayer is concerned with what pertains to their trade”.  These are contrasted in the next chapter with ‘scholars’ – well travelled men who study secular writings and religious texts, and meditate on God.  Such people, says this writer, will become well known and praised in their own day and remembered after their death. But they are few.

Through human history (and until quite recently with our modern obsession with record-keeping and fame) only a small minority of people became well known outside their own town, and fewer still were remembered beyond the next generation of those who had known them.  To die, be buried in an unmarked grave and mourned by few people – that was the fate of most humans, unless they were important enough to appear in official records that were retained for a long time.  The ordinary person – farmer, merchant, miner, baker or housewife – lived their life in a small circle with no expectation of lasting fame.  And countless millions have never made it to adulthood –  rates of death in childhood were historically far higher than they are now, along with miscarriages and still-births.  To live long enough to make a living for yourself was an achievement in itself.

That is the background of the verses in chapter 41: 1-4, where death is described as unwelcome for the rich and healthy, but welcome to the poor, very elderly or distressed. But the word to both of them is “do not dread death’s sentence; remember those who came before and those who will come after”, with a rider that “whether your life lasts ten, a hundred or a thousand years its length will not be held against you in Sheol”.  In other words, while a short life many be thought a tragedy on earth, it will make no difference in the life to come.

Maybe such wisdom needs to be heard by the parents who mourn for years for a dead child, sometimes keeping their bedroom exactly how it was on their last day; or erect a large and florid monument to their “Little angel”; or who spend their last penny and every ounce of energy trying to get “justice” when what happened to their relative was an accident with no one person obviously to blame.  Their grief is understandable, the unexpected loss of a close relative at a young age seems unnatural, but it is a credit to our economy, infrastructure and  health systems that such a loss is now rare.

But it takes a spiritual kind of wisdom to understand that there is a life beyond this one, in which the time we spent on earth is irrelevant.  Happy memories are more helpful than bitterness and anger, and an understanding that the deceased has “gone on ahead of us” may be more helpful than a sense of them having been “left behind”.  One of Jesus’ most comforting sayings is “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” (John 14:2).

 

The Apocrypha in Lent – 13 March

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13 March, Ecclesiasticus chapters 15-18

Yesterday I wrote about the instruction to “be good to yourself”, not to let modesty lead to being unnecessarily harsh on oneself.   Today I am picking up on the passage 17:1-14, which follows from an account of the creation of the universe, earth and animals.  In these subsequent verses, the focus  narrows down on humanity in particular.

Verses 1-2 are honest about our limitations: we are made from earth, will go back to it when we die, and have a finite life span.    But this is followed by an appreciation of just how special we area – made in God’s image, master of other animals (though there is much debate these days over how that mastery should properly be employed), able to taste and smell, see and hear, to think and to judge.  Our purpose is to praise God and “tell of his magnificent works”, even to see and hear God himself (13).

Much of this repeats elements of the creation stories in Genesis.  But there is something different here. Verse 7, “he filled them with knowledge and understanding, and revealed to them good and evil”, seems to make this discernment between good and evil part of God’s plan, rather than the root of all sin as the Genesis account puts it. Like the exhortation we looked at yesterday to be good to your own self, it is a much more positive worldview than that of “traditional religion”.  Here is a God whose aim is to “clothe [people] with strength like his own” (3), to “show them the magnificence of his works” (8).  Humanity is something splendid, even when we are aware of right and wrong.  Here there is no banishment from Eden for seeking knowledge that should not be ours, only a desire that we should understand as much of God’s creation as we can.  That fits in with the whole idea of “seeking Wisdom” which is the theme of the book.

That’s not to say mankind is shown as perfect.  Later in the same chapter there is encouragement to repent of sin and leave it behind, turning to God’s mercy (25-29).  But fellowship with God is the default state, and he is never far away.

 

The Apocrypha in Lent – 8 March

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8 March. Wisdom chapters 16-19

These four chapters concluding the book are all about the Plagues of Eqypt and the beginning of the Exodus.  The story is re-told in vivid poetic language as the writer imagines what it was like for the Egyptians to feel God’s displeasure and suffer the many effects of the plagues, while the people of Israel were unaffected.  Indeed they were particularly blessed: protected from the venom of snakes by the bronze serpent on a pole (later understood as representing the healing power of Christ); protected from the destroying angel (here identified as the Word of God, 18:15, again a name for Christ); given a pillar of fire to lead them while the Egyptians had been terrified by darkness; and fed manna and quail in the desert while the Egyptians went hungry.

Interestingly, the writer imagines not so much physical suffering as psychological trauma, as they become terrified of the darkness by day, and mourn for their firstborn sons and the drowned army.  When disaster strikes and the natural reaction is fear, he says, it quickly becomes apparent who is trusting in God (and can therefore face these things calmly) and who does not (and quickly panics when their means of psychological support is taken away) – “Fear is nothing other than the abandonment of reason; the less you rely within yourself on these, the more alarming it is not to know the cause of your suffering” (17:11-12).

Of course nothing is so clear-cut in real life: some people with strong faith in God may still be of a nervous disposition, and vice-versa.  But one of the themes running through the Bible, and this book in particular, is that God is the rock, the fortress, the solid and dependable support in all circumstan

The Apocrypha in Lent – 6 March

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6 March. Wisdom chapters 9-12

So far, wisdom has been presented in an abstract way, but now in chapters 10-12 she is related specifically to Israel’s history.  How the Jews love to look back at their history – it means so much to them that God had made himself known to their ancestors, rescued them from slavery and oppression, performed miracles whenever the survival of the race was at stake.    But three times in this passage the author acknowledges that God showed “forbearance” not only towards them but also to their enemies – Egyptians and Canaanites.   For God’s mercy is always seen to triumph over judgement, as St James puts it.

This, again, is where God’s Wisdom differs, say from human concepts such as “common sense” or “natural justice”. Not that those are bad ideas, but Wisdom takes us beyond that, into the heart of God’s loving purposes.  No wonder that Christians have often identified Wisdom either with Jesus or the Holy Spirit, the two ways in which God makes himself known among us.

The Apocrypha in a Year – 5 March

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5 March. Wisdom chapters 5-8

This book of Wisdom is traditionally read as if written by King Solomon (although it is widely acknowledged to have been written many centuries later). It is therefore in the voice of a king that other rulers are encouraged to be acknowledge God and rule justly (6:1-12).  The Bible does not put forward any one form of government as inherently better than others.  In its pages we find God’s people led by hereditary kings, high priests, judges (both male and female), military rulers, puppet governors of foreign empires, even reluctant shepherds who have greatness thrust upon them.  Just about anything except a democratically elected president, in fact.  But what matters to God is not how someone comes to be in leadership, nor whether they are free-marketeers or socialists, but whether they realise that God himself is greater than any human might and a higher legal authority than any judge.  The good leader is a woman or man who knows their limitations, accepts that they have no more human rights than anyone else, and listens to wise counsel wherever it may be found.

The next couple of chapters consider the nature of wisdom before moving towards Solomon’s decision to make it (or her) his only guide.  The consistent use of feminine language and personal pronouns for Wisdom throughout the book are a healthy balance against the tendency both to think of God as only masculine, and to limit “wisdom” to impersonal knowledge.  In today’s “big data” society we need to be reminded more than ever that true wisdom is far removed from mere “information”, even “understanding”  or “knowledge” in a limited scientific sense.  Wisdom is personified as female because it is found in relationships not power, humility not strength,  beauty not wealth – and these are traditionally thought of as feminine qualities.

The Apocrypha in Lent – 4 March

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4 March. Wisdom chapters 1-4

After the last couple of weeks’ readings in Maccabees with all the glory and gore of warfare, coming to the book of Wisdom (or Wisdom of Solomon as it is sometimes known) is a blessed relief.  Here, instead of violent struggle in the name of God as the way to please him, we find that a holy and peaceful life is the better way.  These opening chapters contrast the virtuous person who places their trust in God and in the resurrection, with the “ungodly” who live amoral or even immoral lives with no thought for the spiritual consequences.  Several errors are highlighted that the “ungodly” make:

Firstly they do not realise that God, represented as Wisdom, is all-present and all-knowing, aware of our every thought, word and deed (1:6-11).  That in itself should make us stop short when we are tempted to become angry, to hurt someone else, tell lies, or sin in any other way.  But of course we quickly forget that in the heat of the moment.  That is why wisdom is paired with discipline (3:11) – it requires the discipline of frequent prayer to remember constantly that God is with us and aware of everything we do.  And I will be the first to hold my hand up and say that does not yet describe me.

Secondly, by not believing in the afterlife, they think that sins committed in this life have no consequences (chapter 2).  Rather, the wise person is willing to accept hardship or even martyrdom for the sake of God’s favour in the life to come (2:1-9, 4:7-19).

Thirdly, they think wrongly that hardship in this life, particularly in the matter of bearing children (who were very much seen in those days as a sign of God’s blessing) means a person has displeased God. In fact the opposite is true – a woman faithful to one husband but without children is more pleasing to God than someone who has slept around, perhaps in the vain hope of bearing a child by anyone; and the eunuch (perhaps meaning anyone who is sexually different from the majority) will be treated with special favour, again as long as they do not sin (3:10-4:6).  By contrast, the godless person who has many children will suffer God’s displeasure – and so (according to this text) will their children. Jesus contradicted this belief by assuring people that non-one is judged by God for their parent’s sins.

These black-and-white morals may look rather simplistic in our complicated multicultural world with its many different faiths and views on what is acceptable behaviour.  But the first of them, I would argue, is certainly worth thinking about – if you believe in a God who is ever present, that will affect everything you do and how you relate to other people.

 

 

The Bible in a Year – 12 October

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12 October. 1 Corinthians chapters 1-4

The relationship between the apostle Paul and the church in Corinth, as revealed in his two letters (and what some people have deduced from them about their situation), is a fascinating one.  Sometimes he is praising them, holding them up as example to others of what Christians should be like; then a short while later criticising their behaviour and calling them immature.

Paul’s main criticism in this first quarter of the book is that some of the congregation think that they follow, or even worse “belong to”, himself, or to one of the other apostles, rather than Christ.  He has to remind them that all Christians are baptised into Christ (or, in most churches, into the Trinity of God the Father, Jesus Christ who is God’s Son, and the Holy Spirit).  In chapter 3 he uses the analogy of farming, where he and others who have taught them the faith are like farmers, who may plant the crop, but without God’s gifts of earth, air, sun and rain it will not grow.  So it is with Christians: only God grows faith within a person; other people can only provide the “seeds of faith”.

In chapter 4 he uses a different analogy, that of father and child. A parent can teach a child the facts of life, but maturity is something that each person has to work out for him- or herself from experience.  Growth into maturity is what we call wisdom.  But for Paul, human wisdom is not enough in the Kingdom of God.  We also need spiritual maturity, and as far as that was concerned, the Corinthians, although adults, were so immature that they were like babies who are not yet weaned (3:2) – what an insult!  Their immaturity is shown by the division among them according to which of the apostles they wrongly claim to belong to.

Division in the church is not new.  Whether at a global level between “liberal” and “conservative” cultures, at a national level between members of an “official” state church and independent ones, within one church network according to preferences in worship, or even within a single congregation over some trivial issue like whether to replace pews with chairs, we hear it all the time. The media love a ‘divided church’ story, and those of us who are members of such congregations should be ashamed. We need to grow up!

Such divisions not only attract ridicule, they hinder the work of the Holy Spirit who can only work where there is unity of purpose, and mutual love. There was a parody on social media of a well known hymn.  The joke version read “Like a mighty tortoise moves the church of God: brothers we are treading where we’ve always trod.”  The original, not often heard these days, is powerful when it is not only sung but believed as true, and lived out: “Like a mighty army moves the church of God: brothers we are treading where the saints have trod.”  The power of the Holy Spirit that Paul hints at in these opening chapters, and which he will discuss later in his letter, is what moves this mighty army.

Choose your metaphor then: growing crops, a family, or an army. Whichever you prefer, be a part of it, growing together in the love of God, and resist division like the plague.

The Bible in a Year – 24 August

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The last third of the book continues in much the same vein as the rest. It is chapter 9 of Ecclesiastes, paraphrased, that gives us the English idiom “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die”, in other words there is no point denying ourselves life’s pleasures, since whether we enjoy them or not, we will all suffer the same fate of death, with our bodies returning to the earth  (12:7) and no sensations or thoughts beyond that (9:10). Yet we should not neglect to work as well as rest and play (11:6), and throughout the book there are reminders that there is still a judgement (9:1, 11:9, 12:14).

What have I learnt from reading this most unusual book of the Bible – unusual in that it appears at first sight to negate all the other ones that instruct us to live in simplicity, chastity and humility, and work hard? Maybe what matters is not that we live like that, but that doing so makes us more aware of mortality. Denying oneself the “good things” in life may make it easier to be aware of our inner being and contemplate death, but if we can manage to enjoy life’s pleasures and find satisfaction in hard work while still being aware of the death that awaits our bodies and the judgement that awaits the soul, so much the better.  Therein is wisdom, for Solomon obviously managed it.

 

So did Jesus, who seems to have had a whale of a time for the three years of his ministry in Galilee and Judea, knowing all along that a cruel death awaited him.  Beyond that, he knew, he alone would not be judged, for he himself is the judge.  But Jesus has experienced earthly life in all its pleasure and pain in order that he might judge us for our lives – not by how much we have suffered, but rather how much we have enjoyed it, while loving God and our neighbour as well.

 

The motto of the Anglican Diocese of Leeds for which I work is “Loving, Living, Learning”.  I thinks Solomon would have adopted that – he knew how to love, he enjoyed life (despite its “vanity”) and he had learnt true wisdom.